‘In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.’
I could quote from this novel endlessly. Unbelievably, this was the first time I’d read anything by Virginia Woolf. I’m so glad I waited. I genuinely don’t know how I might have reacted to this when I was younger; I get the feeling I might have gulped it down all at once, and not really let it touch the sides.
Instead, I took it slowly, reading this relatively slim novel in even slimmer chunks. I think you have to – or at least, I had to – to truly appreciate the ‘waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved’.
A brief note on plot, although plot really isn’t the point. Clarissa Dalloway, a fifty-something bastion of British privilege, is throwing a party. The narrative follows her thoughts, and those of others – mainly her ex-lover Peter, and a shell-shocked veteran Septimus – through the course of a single day in June. During the course of that day, they wander all around central London, occasionally overlapping, although Septimus’s story is broadly independent of the others. Their minds, though, are elsewhere; in Clarissa and Peter’s case, largely in the past, when they were young and things were different.
I have said this about other classics before, but I was surprised by how, well, modern it all felt. This was partly the style (the somewhat breathless stream-of-consciousness style means this novel will definitely be one I go back to; the access to the characters’ most intimate thoughts (and even more so, their thought processes) is familiar to us now, but was still pretty new in the early 1920s). It was also, though, the subject matter. Despite the shadow of World War I, I wasn’t expecting to read about a shell-shocked soldier. His story forms an agonising counterpoint to the main event, and adds depth to a plot which could otherwise – on the surface, at least – have seemed a little frothy.
The star of the show, though, is undoubtedly Clarissa. Married to a man who solemnly declares ‘that no decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes (besides the relationship was not one that he approved)’, she is serene and respectable on the outside, whilst the narrative ranges over a complex and exhausting inner life, from worrying about aging and death, to wishing she could have done everything differently, to being – at times – happy, almost content. I found this complexity and depth wildly exhilarating; like seeing the world with the colours turned up. ‘It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.’ That must have been an easy thing to believe, after the horrors of the Great War; maybe it’s an even easier thing to believe today. The joy of this novel, for me, though, was its demonstration of exactly the opposite: ‘Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.’ Quite so.